Innovation

Project Wing: A cheat sheet on Alphabet's drone delivery project

Everything you need to know about Project Wing, the prototype drone-delivery system by Google's parent company Alphabet.

Publicly announced in 2014, Project Wing was born out of Google X, the search giant's secretive labs where it cooks up potentially world-changing technologies.

Now run by Google's parent company Alphabet, Project Wing is focused on transforming how goods are shipped, by developing both the aircraft and systems needed for autonomous delivery drones.

Project Wing may not yet have realized its ambition to develop a working drone-delivery system, but it's making progress in a number of areas. Here's everything you need to know about this moonshot project.

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One of the drones being retrieved after testing.

Image: Alphabet / Project Wing

What is Project Wing?

Project Wing is Alphabet's project to build delivery drones, with a view to these autonomous aircraft being used to transport everything from groceries to emergency medicine.

Alphabet is testing these drones in several locations around the world, including rural California and Australia.

The project was originally envisioned to be a way to rapidly deliver defibrillator kits to heart attack victims, and Alphabet still sees various humanitarian roles for the drones, such as helping with disaster relief.

Project Wing is run by a mix of researchers, developers, business strategists and engineers.

How does Project Wing's drone delivery work?

The fleet of unmanned aircraft are being designed to collect packages from businesses and homes, carry them to a chosen location, and lower packages to the ground at the designated spot, such as near a doorstep or in a backyard.

The automated aircraft fly pre-planned routes and use sensors and software to avoid collisions with drones and other obstacles.

The drones' route is mapped by Project Wing's Unmanned Air System Traffic Management (UTM) platform, which allocates the drones' flight path and makes sure the aircraft are able to follow routes that avoid each other, buildings, trees and other hazards.

In order for Project Wing to work effectively, Alphabet wants its drones to be able to pick up packages from anyone in almost any location, without the need for specialized infrastructure or highly trained staff.

What do Project Wing drones look like, and what hardware is used?

Since the first tests, the design of the drones has evolved to reduce their weight and improve their aerodynamics. The existing drones are a cross between a plane and a helicopter, with both rotors and fixed wings, and are designed to take off and land without a runway while also being able to travel further than traditional quadcopters.

Prototypes used during Australian tests in 2017 were capable of travelling a maximum of 120km per hour, could takeoff and land vertically and had a wingspan of less than 1.5 meters.

The plane's bespoke propellers are designed to minimize noise, an important feature if the drones are to be used in residential areas. The project's stated aim is to design a system that is unobtrusive during takeoff, flight and delivery.

Alphabet says its Project Wing researchers chose to design their own aircraft to ensure the craft are able to work in unison safely and effectively. The drones were designed at Alphabet labs at its 'X' R&D facility in Mountain View, California.

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Engineers work on one of the drones' systems in the lab.

Image: Alphabet

How far can each Project Wing drone fly?

During tests the maximum distance the aircraft have flown was about 14km round-trip, although they typically travelled about 10km to make deliveries.

How high do Project Wing drones fly?

Project Wing's delivery drones fly up to 400 feet above the ground.

How autonomous are Project Wing aircraft?

While the drones operate autonomously, at present each drone is monitored by a pilot, who can take control of its flight if a problem arises. Eventually Google plans to run a fully automated system, which is safe and effective and doesn't require the pilots to be on standby.

How much can Project Wing drones carry?

In testing the drones have carried parcels of food and medicine weighing up to 1.5kg, but the aim is for the aircraft to be able to transport a wide range of items. To broaden the type of packages that can be transported by the drones, Alphabet is working to cut the weight of the prototype aircraft, thereby increasing the weight of the deliveries carried.

Ultimately Alphabet envisions drones being able to transport lightweight goods more rapidly and reliably than is possible today, while also generating far lower levels of greenhouse gases than trucks.

How safe are Project Wing drones?

Everything on the drones has a backup that can take over in case of failure, with redundant motors, batteries and navigation systems that can be bought online by intelligent controls to keep the drone airborne.

Alphabet says that safety is the top priority for the drones, stressing the high levels of redundancy it builds into the aircraft.

How are Project Wing's drones controlled?

Project Wing's UTM traffic management system automatically handles drone flight paths — planning and clearing routes, and resolving conflicts with other aircraft.

In June 2017, Project Wing drones took part in a series of tests held by NASA and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), focused on how to manage a large number of drones in a shared airspace.

During the tests, at a site run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Google demonstrated how Project Wing's UTM platform handles the real-time route planning and airspace and hazard notifications for Wing drones, allowing a single operator to look after multiple drones.

The tests were designed to assess whether Project Wing's UTM was able to automatically manage the flight paths of multiple unmanned aerial systems at once, helping the craft navigate around obstacles and other aircraft without manual intervention — a necessary capability if a single operator is to be able look after a fleet of delivery drones.

The complex procedure of managing the flight paths of multiple drones at once is possible due to the large number of backend systems that the UTM platform draws upon. The UTM uses data from Google Maps, Earth and Street View to give it an understanding of physical terrain — the location of buildings, roads, trees and other objects of interest — and can call upon the vast computing power that is distributed across Google's cloud of million of servers.

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The drones are monitored during testing.

Image: Alphabet

Where has Project Wing conducted tests?

The first public tests for Project Wing were held in Queensland, Australia, in 2014, and since 2016, Project Wing has completed thousands of test flights of its drones.

During the initial trials Project Wing delivered batteries, bottled water and radios to farmers in Queensland. In describing why it chose Australia to test its drones, Google stated "Australians have been early adopters of drones, using the technology in agriculture, industry and during emergency situations for many years".

Project Wing completed its first large-scale drone delivery to members of the public in September 2016, when the autonomous aircraft aircraft delivered hundreds of lunches to Virginia Tech students.

Alphabet has continued to concentrate its drone testing on Australia, and in fall 2017 began making direct deliveries to homes in the rural Googong area outside of the city of Canberra, allowing a number of households in the region to order food and medicines using a smartphone app and have them delivered by drone.

The tests saw Project Wing drones ferrying packages to alpaca farmers, math professors, equestrians and artists living in the New South Wales region. The area and the types of goods delivered were chosen in part because of the difference it could make to the participants' lives, with residents facing a 40-minute round-trip by car to buy groceries due to the remoteness of the area.

During the trials, participants were able to use the Project Wing app to order 100 different products from the Chemist Warehouse — including medicines, sun cream, dental products, skincare items, cosmetics, vitamins and personal care items. Hungry residents were also able to order a variety of burritos and burrito bowls from the Guzman y Gomez restaurant.

SEE: Drone policy template (Tech Pro Research)

This Australian test area is expanding, and in early 2018 Project Wing drones began deliveries in the neighboring region of Tuggeranong, which includes more built-up districts and homes with smaller backyards — in what appears to be a trial of how the system performs in more densely populated areas.

Alphabet has said it hopes to further expand the area in which its drones deliver as testing proceeds.

The trials also provided an opportunity for Alphabet to test its UTM platform, specifically how effectively it could identify safe and convenient locations to leave goods that fit participants' criteria for drop-off points — all while helping drones navigate trees, houses, fences and other obstacles in the vicinity. It also gave the Project Wing team the chance to explore some of the practical considerations when transporting goods from an actual business, for example in the case of Guzman y Gomez, how to ensure burritos were delivered fresh from the kitchen, as well as how to handle packages of differing shapes and sizes.

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A package is delivered by a Project Wing drone during testing in Australia.

Image: Alphabet

How do the drones deliver packages?

During tests, the drone hovers about five meters above the ground and lowers items using a winch. Once set down, the package is disconnected from the line and the drone flies off, allowing the householder to collect the package.

Participants in the tests were able to use the Project Wing app to direct drones to deliver items to a number of locations.

Is the drone delivery business sustainable?

Alphabet envisions that eventually its UTM system could be used to allow various hobbyist and commercial drone operators to safely fly craft in the same airspace, with a network of airspace service providers that coordinate their movements with the aid of the real-time route planning and notifications of unexpected behavior or hazards provided by the UTM.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides and cheat sheets

Alphabet anticipates the UTM will play an important role in helping a large volume of drones operate in a shared airspace — performing operations ranging from package delivery to search and rescue.

The US Federal Aviation Authority has estimated there will be about 1.6 million commercial drones in use by 2021.

Who is partnering with Project Wing?

Managing the growing number of drones safely and securely in the sky requires collaboration and coordination between regulators, the aviation community, drone operators and manufacturers, and local people.

Alphabet is working with drone operators and manufacturers to make the UTM interoperable with various autonomous craft, with the aim of making flying safer and easier.

On the regulatory side, Alphabet says it is working with the FAA in the US on the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, and in Australia it is working with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) on ways to manage drones in a low-altitude, shared airspace.

What are the biggest challenges for the commercial drone industry?

Aside from the unresolved technical challenges of having a small number of people managing fleets of drones in a dynamic environment full of moving obstacles and populated with people, animals and birds, the other main barrier is regulatory. Until recently it looked like drone delivery systems like Project Wing and Amazon Prime Air may be slow to get off the ground in the US, with Australia, Singapore and the UK placing fewer regulatory barriers than the US in the way of future projects.

However, despite Federal Aviation Authority regulations stalling progress in the US last year, there are reports that an intervention by the White House may help remove many of the roadblocks by pushing for closer collaboration between government and companies like Amazon and Alphabet on the issue of drone delivery. Until such a partnership bears fruit, there are at least 10 FAA-approved, drone-related pilot programs expected to start this spring.

What is the current state of Project Wing, and what's next?

The timetable for the project has not exactly run to plan — not surprising given the technical and regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome. In 2015, in an air traffic control convention near Washington, David Vos, then chief of the Project Wing team, told attendees the company hoped to have a commercial drone delivery business up and running by 2017.

However, testing seems to be ramping up, and next on the agenda is an expansion of the tests in Australia, which will see drones deliver to smaller backyards in more densely populated areas.

SEE: DIY drones: 20 kits to build your own

Like Amazon with its Prime Air project, Alphabet is currently working with regulators to remove roadblocks to its drone-delivery program getting off the ground.

Which programs related to Project Wing are Alphabet's engineers working on?

Project Wing was born out of X, the division of Google's parent company Alphabet that focuses on moonshot projects — programs designed to explore cutting-edge technology without the expectation of generating any near-term returns. Other notable projects to emerge from the division include Project Loon, which aims to use internet-beaming balloons to bring affordable internet to rural areas, and the Waymo project to develop a self-driving car.

Why did the original Project Wing X fail?

The Project has never ceased since its public launch in 2014, but it has gone through some rocky patches. In 2015, Google X director Astro Teller revealed the original drone had to be redesigned due to suffering from stability problems while hovering. The project is subsequently rumored to have suffered some setbacks, supposedly being scaled back in 2016 after a proposed partnership with coffee chain Starbucks broke down. However, news of late seems to be more positive, with a series of successfully completed tests that take Project Wing nearer to being a working system.

SEE: Drone deliveries in the US could happen 'within months'

However, Alphabet did shutter the solar drone division formed by its Titan Aerospace acquisition in 2014, with staff redistributed across Project Loon, Project Wing and other Google X divisions.

How is Project Wing different to Amazon Prime Air?

Amazon Prime Air is similar to Project Wing, in that it is a concept for an autonomous drone-delivery system that would transport packages to their destination within 30 minutes. Amazon has built a warehouse from which it carried out Prime Air deliveries in Cambridge, England as part of a trial in 2016.

Amazon plans for drones to fly at up to 50mph and carry packages weighing up to 2.26kg.

Like Project Wing, Prime Air is currently working through technical and regulatory challenges, with no launch date for the service currently listed on Amazon's site.

Also see

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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